Political Normalization of Extremism Poses New Threats In South Asia
In 2005, a popular Hindu nationalist was denied entry to the United States under a section of US law that makes any foreign government official who “was responsible for or directly carried out, at any time, particularly severe violations of religious freedom” ineligible for a visa to the United States. Nine years later, that Hindu nationalist became Prime Minister of India. To his credit, Narendra Modi has repeatedly denounced communalism, declaring in 2015 that, “Nobody has the right to discriminate on the basis of religion… No one has the right to take law into his hands.” Unfortunately, despite the Prime Minister’s recent statements, many religious extremists in India have taken Modi’s ascension as an invitation to aggressively pursue a new era of Hindu nationalism, and intolerance has risen as a result. In fact, earlier this year more extreme Hindu nationalist groups like the notorious “Shiv Sena” announced that they were going to field their own candidates in elections to “teach a lesson to BJP” about what they perceived as a lack of enthusiasm in Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) for their far-right agenda.
In Pakistan, majoritarian politics dates back to the nation’s founding ideology that posited that Hindus and Muslims comprise “two nations,” and thus require separate nation states. Despite this ideological underpinning, Islamist parties have never performed particularly well with voters. That doesn’t mean that they aren’t continuing to make inroads, though. And the strain of Islamism in Pakistani politics is becoming more and more radical. Secular parties like the Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) are led by politicians who praise the Taliban as holy warriors, and subsidize religious schools known for recruiting militants for international jihad. Now, militant groups themselves are getting into politics. Last December, an independent candidate backed by the outlawed militant group Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat (ASWJ) was elected to the Punjab Assembly. Now, a UN-designated international terrorist group has announced that it is forming its own political party to contest elections.
In Bangladesh, too, Islamist extremists are becoming more emboldened. Jamaat-e-Islami, an Islamist group that seeks to replace what is left of the country’s nominally secular democracy with a self-styled Islamic theocracy, has demanded 82 constituencies from from the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), the country’s main opposition party. Meanwhile, Hefazat-e-Islam, the umbrella group of Islamist extremists who seek to impose draconian, Taliban-like rule on the country, are recruiting their own candidates to take part in future elections.
In each of these countries, religious radicalism and communal militancy is becoming normalized through the political process. This a critically important development. For years, analysts have suggested that “mainstreaming” extremist groups by encouraging their participation in the political process would magically cause them to “moderate.” Instead, what we are seeing is that the participation of radical groups is mainstreaming extremism, and radicalizing the political discourse to greater degrees. As the mainstream political discourse engages increasingly radical ideas, what is considered “moderate” is becoming more and more radical. As extremist parties rise, center-left parties like the Indian National Congress and the Pakistan People’s Party are becoming less and less politically relevant. In Bangladesh, the nominally secular Awami League continues to hold the line – but there are signs that cracks are beginning to show there, as well.